13Eotvos Tri SestryPéter Eötvös – Tri Sestry
Soloists; Frankfurter Opern-und; Museumsorchester; Dennis Russell Davies
Oehms Classics OC 986 (naxosdirect.com)

In this opera by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös – a towering figure in the contemporary classical music world – a mind-boggling number of characters weave strange relationships that are all held together by a very strong musical setting of Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. The orchestra and cast in this recording masterfully execute Eötvös’ complex and demanding score. From the opening passages all the musicians create a world-class atmosphere of artistic confidence. The orchestra provides massive percussive screeches and rugged landscapes upon which beauty and hysteria interweave harmoniously. 

With dozens of performances, it would be safe to say that his opera has become a standard of the repertoire – a testament to the masterful writing we are used to from Eötvös This opera is artistically sound, and the fabulous music-making by the singers and orchestra make for a compelling listen that is a must for contemporary opera lovers.

01 Weber FluteCarl Maria von Weber – Chamber Music for Flute
Kazunori Seo; Shohei Uwamori; Makoto Ueno
Naxos 8.573766 (naxos.com)

Carl Maria von Weber, best known for his operas, Der Freischütz and Oberon, also composed chamber music, some of which is to be found on this disc. I will pay the performers, fronted by flutist Kazunori Seo, the ultimate compliment: that I felt listening to this recording that I could hear Weber’s voice throughout. Yes, you can at times hear the influence of Beethoven and of his contemporary, Friedrich Kuhlau; but the music presented here is not mere imitation but an original take on, and within the stylistic parameters of, the time.

There is much to admire in the A-flat Major Sonata, the first work on this recording: the elegant phrasing in the opening movement, the dramatic dynamics and judicious use of vibrato in the slow second movement. In the second work, the Grand Duo Concertant, in which I hear the influence of Kuhlau, there is boundless but carefully managed excitement, drama and virtuosic flute playing matched at every moment by the effortless fluidity of pianist, Makoto Ueno.

To me, however, the high point in the disc is the third and last composition, the Trio in G Minor, in which flutist and pianist are joined by cellist Shohei Uwamori. Weber’s artistry reveals itself like an early morning sunrise: the first movement begins with the melancholic opening theme played first on the flute and then on the piano, which adds a new and unexpected layer of understanding of the music. But when the cello follows with a second theme, the effect is breathtaking!

02 Four London MyriadFour
London Myriad
Métier msv 28587 (divineartrecords.com)

This is a crisp and capable ensemble, a woodwind quintet minus French horn. The material is supplied by the French and English moderns. For tuneful fun, turn to Eugène Bozza, Jean Françaix and Richard Rodney Bennett. Jacques Ibert, Claude Arrieu and Frank Bridge supply some more weight, but never too heavy. Largely the playing is elegant and the ensemble finds admirable unity of pitch and articulation, no small task among such diverse voices, and they play the spirited small works with great verve, as if they were having a heck of a time doing so. 

I really like this group, their relative youth, the way the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I particularly like Bridge’s Divertimenti, H.189. Easily the longest selection on the disc, the composer allows an idea to develop and subside into a new one in each of the four movements. One is led to suppose each movement stands on its own, but he follows a format for a multi-movement work meant to be performed as a whole, like a miniature symphony. The second movement, Nocturne, is a dialogue for flute and oboe. Rather daringly, given the sparse character, this stands as the longest movement. Naturally, the scherzo which follows is a duet for clarinet and bassoon. Mr. Bridge is a staunch egalitarian.

02 Four London MyriadJoy & Desolation
Alexander Fiterstein; Tesla Quartet
Orchid Classics ORC100106 (orchidclassics.com)

Get ready, the youth are marching, and they hear the beat of a drummer we should all listen for. Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and the Tesla String Quartet have released a sharp-looking package of chamber works for that particular and popular grouping, the clarinet quintet. 

After paying homage to the founder of the movement, Mozart, in his Quintet K581, they embark on a path through the 20th century: Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles (arranged by Christian Alexander) and a late-millennial work by a pre-boomer, Soliloquy by John Corigliano. Lastly comes a brief and fairly recent work by Argentine composer Carolina Heredia: Ius in Bello (Laws of War) (2014).

I appreciate the care and skill the group employs in recreating Mozart’s beloved chamber work; it will certainly not disappoint. The colour of Fiterstein’s clarinet brightens the rich sound of the quartet, whose lead voice (in this instance, violinist Michelle Lee, although she alternates on the disc with Ross Snyder), offers a gorgeous counterpoint to the woodwind. They score points as a group for not attempting to reinvent the work; instead they bring a clear sensibility about the use of nuance (tactful and restrained) and attention to prevent vibrato from creeping into the colour. Kudos.

My skepticism about the value of the Bagatelles melted on hearing it improved by the piano part being replaced by the individual string voices. Here the (subtle) vibrato in all the voices turns what is a somewhat pedestrian duo into a touching choral ensemble work. Corigliano provides the “desolation” referred to in the disc’s title with a haunting elegy to the composer’s late father. Heredia’s short and edgy work is a refraction of the conflict-filled world of today.

04 Brahms HagenBrahms – String Quartet Op.67; Piano Quintet Op.34
Kiril Gerstein; Hagen Quartett
Myrios Classics MYR021 (naxosdirect.com)

Brahms was happiest at the piano and reluctant to venture into the unknown territory of chamber music involving instruments with which he was not entirely familiar. Many such forays into the unknown were cautiously undertaken. Moreover Brahms had a habit of destroying pieces he did not approve. Considering all of this it is remarkable that his mature chamber work is among the greatest of the 19th century.

The String Quartet No.3 in B-flat Major is one of three quartets which give credence to his view that (for Brahms) the quartet remained a proving ground for experiments of striking originality. It harks back to the world of Mozart and Haydn. Yet throughout, the cycle of nostalgia is muted and it serves only to allow Brahms’ interplays and musical tensions to be resolved with greater impact. Schumann once described Brahms’ chamber music as “symphonies in disguise” and the Piano Quintet in F Minor is typical of this. It combines the resonances of orchestral music with the differentiated textures of chamber music and is a masterpiece of Brahms’ maturity.

Kirill Gerstein offers a legendary interpretation of the Piano Quintet. With high drama, impulsive accelerations, ominous pauses which shrink to a whisper, and moments of deliberation, the work explodes to life. The Hagen Quartett play with such a high level of empathy that at times it’s possible to imagine these works were written almost exclusively for them.

05 Saint Saens UtahSaint-Saëns – Symphony No.1; Symphony in A Major; The Carnival of the Animals
Utah Symphony; Thierry Fischer
Hyperion CDA68223
(hyperion-records.co.uk)

The output of Camille Saint-Saëns was an impressive one, yet for some reason, a great many of his pieces lie in relative obscurity today. Among these are two symphonies – both early works – and both overshadowed by the lavish “Organ” symphony of 1886. Critics tend to dismiss them as derivative, but they remain fine examples of a young composer’s first forays into symphonic writing as evidenced here on this splendid Hyperion recording featuring the Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer.

From the majestic opening measures of the Symphony in E flat from 1853, it’s clear that the orchestra is in full command of this buoyant and optimistic music. The martial mood of the first movement is continued in the second movement Scherzo, followed by a lyrical Adagio. The Finale: Allegro Maestoso is exactly that – majestic and ceremonious music, where the Utah’s formidable brass section is given ample opportunity to demonstrate its prowess, and the triumphant conclusion performed with great panache.

The Symphony in A Major is an even earlier work, composed c.1850 when the composer was all of 15. There are echoes of Beethoven and Mendelssohn here, particularly in the sunny third movement Scherzo and the jubilant Allegro molto finale. Again, the orchestra delivers a stylish and convincing performance under Fischer’s sensitive baton.

Interspersed between the two symphonies is the popular Carnival of the Animals. The musical menagerie with its braying, squawking and clucking is proof indeed that the dignified 53-year-old composer – forever sporting a beard and a frock coat – had a keen sense of humour after all.

Bien fait! This is a wonderful recording showcasing two of Saint-Saëns’ less well-known orchestral works along with one of his most familiar – a welcome addition to the catalogue.

06 Second WindSecond Wind
Dave Camwell
Navona Records nv6253
(navonarecords.com)

The saxophone was patented by Adophe Sax in 1846, after a great deal of music had already been written. And it was not until the mid- to end- of the 20th century that its repertoire diversified. Dave Camwell’s Second Wind contains an exciting variety of works written for the saxophone but also includes several pieces by Bach, Vivaldi and Handel which have been arranged for the instrument. Music history contains many examples of re-orchestration: Bach performed many of his works with different instrumentation and Robert Schumann added piano accompaniment to Bach sonatas. Camwell has further revised Schumann’s arrangements by adding two saxophones (the other played by Susan Fancher) to Partita No.3, BMV1006 and Sonata No.3 BMV1005. The players’ bright sound and clean articulation show how well-suited the saxophone is for Baroque music.

Camwell shows his mastery of many forms with the other pieces, including Robert Muczynski’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, Op.29. Throughout the two movements, Andante Maestoso and Allegro Energico, he combines a muscular technique with a light and effervescent sound through the entire range of the instrument, including altissimo passages. Three larger works round out the album, one with wind ensemble, another with chorale and the final work, Russell Peterson’s Concerto for Flute, Alto Saxophone and Symphonic Band. The variety of music from different centuries, and with such diverse instrumentation, makes this album a real saxophone tour de force!

14 Hommage to Women ComposersHommage to Women Composers
The Piano Duo of Iris Graffman Wenglin & Ruth Lomon
Navona Records nv6254
(navonarecords.com)

The duo of pianist/lecturer Iris Graffman Wenglin and composer/pianist Ruth Lomon had been performing traditional two-piano programs when they came up with the idea of playing works by women composers, music that was usually difficult to find and seldom performed. When Lomon was in London, she began to research works, and this project took off. Recorded in 1976 and 1978, and remastered in 2017, this fruit of the duo’s labours features pieces by 11 women composers from the Romantic era to the late 20th century.

Two Clara Wieck Schumann piano solos played by Graffman Wenglin set the stage for future tracks. Highlights include Barbara Pentland’s Three Piano Duets After Pictures by Paul Klee (1958) featuring spaces and rhythmic attacks interspersed with lyric sections. I love Lomon’s composition Soundings for Piano Four Hands (1975) which lives up to its title with wide-ranging atonal piano effects like low ringing lines against higher tones, virtuosic chords and leaps. Thea Musgrave’s Excursions (1965) has eight under-one-minute car-driving movements like the bumpy rhythmic The Drunken Driver, the lyrical relaxing The Sunday Driver and the accented heavy chord Backseat Driver. Compositions by Tailleferre, Talma, Gideon, Richter, Fontyn, Ptaszynska and Ran complete the collection. 

Graffman Wenglin and Lomon are spectacular musicians, both individually and as a duo. They completely respect and understand the diverse styles, technique, ensemble playing and compositional intricacies of each piece and of each other’s musicianship. This timeless recording is a wonderful memorial to Lomon who died in 2017

01 AntheilGeorge Antheil – Symphony No.1; Suite from Capital of the World etc.
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 20080 (chandos.net)

This is the third in a series of invaluable volumes devoted to the orchestral works of the notorious “Bad Boy of Music,” the pistol-packing composer, pianist, inventor, author and occasional glandular advice columnist, George Antheil (1900-1959). A protégé of Ernest Bloch, he left America in 1920 in hot pursuit of his then girlfriend whose mother had banished to Paris, in an attempt to discourage their relationship. It proved a lucky break for him, for upon his arrival his piano recitals were soon lionized by the intellectual elite of the capital. He cemented his European reputation in 1926 with the literally riotous premiere of what will always remain his best known work, the sensational Ballet Mécanique for multiple pianos and percussion. Alas, the clouds of war gradually intervened and he returned to a less-than-impressed America, ending up in Hollywood scoring obscure movies. 

Of the shorter pieces on this disc the opening McKonkey’s Ferry Overture of 1948 is a boisterous depiction of George Washington’s celebrated crossing of the Delaware River at a site not far from Antheil’s birthplace of Trenton, New Jersey. The Golden Bird is a delicately scored fragment of chinoiserie, derived from a 1922 piano piece. The waltzing Nocturne in Skyrockets dates from 1951, while the Capital of the World suite is a vividly coloured, Latin-tinged anthology from Antheil’s 1952 ballet score. 

The most ambitious work on offer is Antheil’s First Symphony from 1922, an impressive declaration of patriotic American nostalgia which received only a partial premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic but was not heard again until the beginning of this century. It’s quite a winning work, polystylistic in the extreme with a little something for everyone to enjoy. Antheil was an expert and innovative orchestrator whose timbral flair is vividly brought to life by the enthusiastic ministrations of John Storgårds and his expert BBC ensemble.

02 MessiaenMessiaen – L’Ascension; Le Tombeau Resplendissant; Les Offrandes Oubliees; Un Sourire
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Paavo Järvi
Alpha-Classics.com ALPHA 548 (naxosdirect.com)

To celebrate Paavo Järvi’s appointment as their new music director, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich has released this admirable collection of early orchestral works by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a composer demonstrably dear to Järvi’s heart. The disc begins with Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931), a lesser-known work that reflects a crucial time in Messiaen’s life; it bears an unsettling autobiographical program note that begins, “My youth is dead: it was I who killed it.” Perhaps feeling it was too personally revealing, he withdrew the work from his catalogue for decades. It was eventually published in 1997. This is followed by the transcendent “symphonic meditation” Les Offrandes oubliées (1930), one of his most successful works in this genre. 

Notably absent in the works of the 1930s, Messiaen’s preoccupation with birdsong is front and centre, alternating with retrospective hymnal passages reminiscent of his earlier style, in the late Un sourire (1989), which premiered  December 5, 1991, as Messiaen’s exquisite contribution to the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The recording concludes with the original orchestral version of the lengthy, supremely Catholic devotional tone poem L’Ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques (1932/33); the later 1934 version, with a different third movement, is a well-known crown jewel of the organ repertoire. 

Järvi maintains an excellent command of the orchestra throughout. The dense harmonies projected by the Zürich strings are sublime and expertly balanced, the percussion section is impressively resonant and solo passages are outstanding. A very fine job indeed by the recording team, sourced from live performances from January and April 2019.

03 Ginastera HarpGinastera – Harp Concerto Op.25
Sidsel Walstad; Norwegian Radio Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
LAWO LWC1182 (naxosdirect.com/)

Astor Piazzolla may be more celebrated a musical figure in contemporary Argentina, but Alberto Ginastera is perhaps its most exalted composer. His career spanned almost 50 years (1934-1983). Through all three phases – objective nationalism, subjective nationalism and neo-expressionism – Ginastera remained the greatest exponent of the Argentinean gauchesco tradition which holds that the gaucho – a native, landless horseman – is the icon of Argentina. In the last decade or so of his life, the composer’s appeal was so great, his influence stretched into many musical styles including jazz and so-called progressive rock.

The selections on this disc, featuring harpist Sidsel Walstad and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, are emblematic of Ginastera’s great gift for creating epic compositions that evoke Argentinean music and dance traditions. These he skillfully integrated into classical forms contemporaneous with the 20th century. Romanticism is never very far away, of course, and this is clear from both Harp Concerto, Opus 25 and the 12 Variaciones concertantes, Op.23. 

Both Walstad and the orchestra deliver fine performances of two of Ginastera’s eminently paradigmatic works. Walstad’s playing is eloquently dreamy and distinctively ripe in tone. Her performance, based on the 1968 revision (also performed by Nicanor Zabaleta), is scintillating. The orchestra, under Harth-Bedoya’s baton is stunning. What musicians across the board deliver is startlingly fresh and alive.

04 Villa Lobos concertosHeitor Villa-Lobos – Guitar Concerto; Harmonica Concerto
Manuel Barrueco; José Staneck; OSESP Ensemble; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.574018 (naxos.com)

The composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is to Brazil what Bach and Beethoven are to Germany, Liszt is to Hungary and Chopin to Poland. Uniquely, Villa-Lobos also became the cellist who played many other instruments, including guitar, on which he achieved a remarkable facility. Virtuosity across many instruments also became one of Villa-Lobos’ strong suits. Burle Marx, the conductor and close friend once asked Villa-Lobos if there was anything he did not play. “Only oboe,” was the reply; but when the two met shortly afterwards, Villa-Lobos was well on his way to mastering that instrument too.

Villa-Lobos’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by Andrés Segovia in 1951; (performed in February 1956). It is different from the bright colours and seductive melodies of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But it is highly virtuosic, emotional, and explores a range of techniques including glissandi, arpeggiation and harmonics. The Harmonica Concerto is emblematic of Villa-Lobos’ cross-instrument virtuosity. The appropriately numinous Sexteto místico is imaginatively poetic and the rhapsodic and sensual Quinteto instrumental is typical of the composer’s ability to communicate with feverish Brazilian passion.

The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, is in exquisite form throughout, as is the OSESP Ensemble. The warmth of guitarist Manuel Barrueco’s playing – like his tone and touch – is eminently suited to Villa-Lobos’ work. Harmonica wizard José Staneck’s performance is utterly unforgettable for his ability to communicate Brazilian saudade on so tiny, albeit exquisitely chromatic, an instrument.

05 Tyler NickelChristopher Tyler Nickel – Music for Woodwind Choirs
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27019
(cmccanada.org)

The two large works on this CD, both composed in 2017, are Suite for Two Oboes and Two English Horns and Symphony for Flute Choir. Each is performed by a group of superb Canadian musicians, conducted by Clyde Mitchell, music director of the Lions Gate Sinfonia and former associate principal horn in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The performances are, to my ears, flawless and vital.

Nickel’s music is full of life: imagination, invention, variation – a deep understanding of the craft of composition. The artistry, for example, of the opening movement of the Suite, is evident from the first notes: the same note played three times on the English horns, to which the oboes reply with a five-note motif on three pitches. This is just the beginning of a journey, which leads us through an episode of melodic development and several contrapuntal episodes – in the complexities of which we never feel lost – and then back to a satisfying recapitulation. This is composition at its best – arresting and masterful.

The Symphony for Flute Choir brings comparable invention: in the first movement Nickel develops what sounds like an atonal theme – an engaging one – into 12 minutes of music, always interesting and all derived from this one short theme. In the second movement I was struck by Nickel’s extraordinary melodic flair, a satisfying blend of repetition and variation.

I hope there will be live performances of these wonderful works in the not-too-distant future!

06 Schwartkopf DetachDetach
Angela Schwarzkopf
Redshift Records TK472
(redshiftrecords.org)

Often, new music, as much as that term is understood within the worlds of jazz or art music, is put forward to provoke, to be forward thinking, or to be purposefully progressive. Among the many adjectives most frequently used to describe this interesting genre, beautiful and serene are, arguably, not often heard. That is, however, not the case with Detach, the debut recording from Toronto-based harpist Angela Schwarzkopf on Redshift Records. Her sublime instrumental touch and skillful manipulation of dynamics successfully draw in and activate listenership. With the extremely capable accompaniment featuring vibraphonists Michelle Colton and Étienne Levesque, Schwarzkopf highlights and bring to life a number of compositions by new and notable contemporary Canadian composers Monica Pearce, Cecilia Livingston, Patrick Arteaga, Mark Nerenberg, Elisha Denburg and Kevin Lau. 

There is an intriguing programmatic arc to this recording. After an initial bold musical statement, Detach moves slowly and gently through the rest of Pearce’s attach/detach before traversing a tremendous terrain of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Compositional nuance and sophistication abound, as well as wide-ranging dynamics, before ending, after a 15-minute tour de force reading of Lau’s Castles in the Sand, with an arpeggiated cascading melodic line on solo harp. 

This recording is indeed progressive, forward-thinking and modern, but it is simultaneously engagingly listenable, melodic and beautiful. Congratulations to the Ontario Arts Council for having the good sense to support these important voices in contemporary Canadian music, and to Schwarzkopf and the vibraphonists for creating such a fine recording. Picking up on the hopeful success of this debut, I trust there will be more to come. 

07 Zosha di CastriZosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Various Artists
New Focus Recordings FCR 227 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Right from the beginning of her career, Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri has been stirring up great enthusiasm – and some controversy. This recording, the first devoted solely to her compositions, offers up the altogether worthwhile experience of entering Di Castri’s adventurous sound world. 

There is a lot going on in these works, with their constant shifts in mood and texture. But the inventive details add up to much more than a series of engaging episodes. Each work is tautly structured, creating an invigorating momentum. Above all, these works are inescapably moving, whether on a personal level, or when confronting the global issues that concern Di Castri. 

The best moments are the most unexpected. Take the burst of reflectiveness at the end of the title work Tachipito. Or the way the explosive glissandi in Quartet No.1 are interrupted by magical other-worldly harmonics. In Dux, virtuosic passages of unprompted rhapsodizing create a reassuring dream state. In Cortège, from 2010 the earliest composition here, the repetition of the opening motif throughout creates a poignant sense of longing. 

Each work is played by a different set of musicians. The array of performers gathered here is truly exceptional, from solo pianist Julia Den Boer playing Dux to the 13 musicians of the Talea Ensemble under Lorraine Vaillancourt performing Cortège.

Di Castri’s fresh, imaginative voice carries forward the vital lineage of the avant-garde at its most enjoyable. With these works she manages to both challenge and delight.

08 Mercer SistersOur Strength, Our Song
Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner; Rachel Mercer
Centrediscs CMCCD 27719
(cmccanada.org)

In a recent issue of The WholeNote, David Jaeger wrote at length about cellist Rachel Mercer. Jaeger produced this new release with Rachel and her violinist sister Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner playing six duo works by Canadian women composers. 

Violet Archer’s Four Duets for Violin and Cello (1979) is a four-movement work composed “especially” for violinist Tom Rolston and his then 12-year-old cellist-daughter Shauna. Family fun galore, as the opening Brooding movement starts with a slightly grim low-pitched cello mood leading to a more reassuring violin line. Love the upbeat plucks in the dramatic Paean fourth movement. More tonal rhythmic sounds in Jean Coulthard’s Duo Sonata for Violin & Cello (1989) as repeated patterns and plucks unite this orchestral-sounding piece. Barbara Monk Feldman‘s Pour un nuage violet (1998) is a welcome change of pace with nature-inspired subtle rhythmic original sounds.

The Mercer sisters are phenomenal in their passionate performances of their commissioned works. Rebekah Cummings’ Our Strength, Our Song (2018) features conversational counterpoint, high and low staccatos, and dynamic shifts written in traditional Bulgarian folk-singing style. Jocelyn Morlock’s (2019) Serpentine Paths’ use of intense sound effects like high violin and low cello pitch contrasts, fast intense and slower passages, is a race to the performance finish line! Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Kagura Fantasy (2018) is an exciting listen with contemporary string effects, theatrical feel, dance-like sections and Asiatic folk-music influences.

The Mercer sisters are inspirational to both musicians and families alike.

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